Throughout my time in college, I’ve learned that living independently is mainly an exercise in taking mental inventories. Each day, I find myself cataloging lists of how many pages of reading I have to do by tomorrow, how much money I spent the night before and how many hours of studying I can get in before my exam if I start being productive right that second. List-making became a subconscious part of my daily life, but as my time as a student comes to a close, I feel my lists starting to change. Instead of assignments and personal finances, I’ve turned inward, and considered how many relationships I have ruined while I was drunk, and if what surrounds me now is really all I have to show for four years.
In response to these disquieting inventories, and driven by the accumulative shame I’ve felt when my roommates filled me in on a previous night’s belligerent behavior, I started going to local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The only previous exposure I’d had to AA was from reading David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” which coincidentally I read during a five-month stretch when I lived at home, at the request of my parents, in response to a litany of underage drinking tickets. During those five months, I attended treatment and was “sober” in the sense that I didn’t drink while in my hometown, but drank to excess whenever I came to Ann Arbor to visit my now-ex-girlfriend.
After attending a few meetings, I was surprised at how exactly spot-on Wallace was when he wrote about AA. All the clichés are there: free coffee in little Styrofoam cups, chain smokers and old blue-collar guys who have been sober for 10-plus years but still keep coming to meetings. Wallace calls these gentlemen “the crocodiles” on account of their weathered and scaly faces from years of hitting the bottle and subsequent years of smoking cigarettes outside of AA meetings. The first time I went to a meeting, I was met with pithy nuggets of wisdom that scared me when I realized how closely they hit home — “It’s the ants that make us drink, not the elephants.”
I haven’t experienced any great tragedy like some of my more experienced AA fellows, and I don’t have any felonies that mandate my attendance to meetings, but I go nonetheless. Most of the time, I feel like I don’t belong, and I know it’s because I have a stockpile of excuses and rationalizations for not accepting my drinking as alcoholism.
In the spirit of making lists, here are some of the most popular: I work a shit job on top of a brutal class schedule, it’s my senior year and I should be having fun, and other people drink way more than me and are fine. I can’t escape this feeling that sobriety is somehow wrong for me. The classic AA big-book response to this sort of backsliding is that a lifetime without drinking is such an overwhelming thought that it will defeat even the most dedicated seeker of sobriety. This fear is what inspired the central tenet of AA, that sobriety is maintained one day at a time. But even this outlook, which in many ways is the be-all and end-all of AA, doesn’t make the thought of sobriety any less terrifying.
Each day I add to my list of sober days feels more like a brick than an accomplishment, and I feel these bricks stacking up precariously higher with each passing day. I’m tempted to just take a drink and throw it all away, because it makes rational sense that the collapse of 30 bricks would be much less damaging than the collapse of 90 or 365. This pseudo-rationality is how I’ve gone about my entire college career. I’ve tried to justify my destructive relationship with alcohol by saying to myself that I’m just a normal college binge drinker, that every party needs a drunk wild card, or more severely, that I have an emptiness inside me that prevents me from feeling happiness without alcohol.
At one of my first meetings, a true crocodile approached me at the night’s end and asked me when my “Sober Birthday” was — an AA term for the date of your last drink. He could tell I was new to AA because most, if not all, newly sober people at an AA meeting have a familiar expression of quiet, doe-eyed apprehension and shame. Embarrassed, I told him that it was only a few days ago. To my surprise, he smiled and explained that it was great, as an old AA veteran, to be able to pay forward the help that he received back when he was only three days sober. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him “before the drink, not after.” After the first week of attending meetings, I had a new inventory of names and faces that shared a common hope with me — names and faces that were willing to share their wisdom and experiences in a meeting or over the phone with a near stranger.
They say in AA that in order to be successful and attain sobriety, you have to concede to your innermost self that you’ve lost control. I’m struggling to take this vital first step; I think the current driving force behind my sobriety is an abject fear of feeling like a hypocrite, rather than a genuine desire to adopt a new way of living and shed an old way of dying. Sobriety won’t miraculously bring me happiness, and I know I may have to try and fail before being successful, but I’ll keep attending meetings, and I’ll wait. I’ll wait until my stack of bricks assembles into a real foundation or collapses on itself.